There is no justice on the earth, they say.
But there is none in heaven, either.

Pushkin Mozart and Salieri


Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (1979) is constructed as an inquiry into the nature of God and God’s relationship with Man. Milos Forman’s eponymous film (1984) deals with the same subject. It is a faithful adaptation of the play whose main theme is at a juncture of art, religion and philosophy.

Shaffer is not however the first writer who turned the rivalry of Antonio Salieri (1750 – 1825) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) into a story of cosmic dimensions. Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play Mozart and Salieri in 1830. He furnished the story of a “poisonous” relationship between the two composers with a theological argument of God’s injustice to ordinary men.

O heaven, where,
Where is the justice, when the holy gift,
Immortal genius, comes not as reward
For any burning love or self-denial,
Labor, diligence or prayer, but lights
Its radiance instead in heads of folly
And frivolity?

In Pushkin’s play, Salieri is so incensed by God’s injustice that he assumes the role of the defender of all mediocre men and women, “us children of the dust”, who must be protected from God’s negligence and favouritism towards men of extraordinary qualities. The similarities between Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri and Shaffer’s Amadeus are so striking that Shaffer’s claim he was not aware of Pushkin’s play at the time of writing Amadeus is rather surprising.

The film’s narrative frame is Salieri’s confession, made in a mental asylum at the end of his life, that he killed Mozart because he could not stand his own mediocrity and Mozart’s blessedness. Ama-Deus is apparently beloved by God. Salieri initially believes that he made a pact with God. In his youth, he promised to be entirely devoted to God in exchange for being endowed with musical talent. All events in his life suggest that God agrees to the bargain and keeps his side of it. A native of a provincial town in Lombardy, Salieri is transported to Vienna, a musical capital of Europe at that time. He becomes Hofkapellmeister achieving, apparently with God’s help, all that was possible to achieve on the musical scene of the continent in the second half of the eighteenth century.

And then Mozart arrives. Salieri realises that his rival’s music is infinitely better that his own. It is now clear to him that Mozart is an instrument in God’s hands. Mozart’s music is of such beauty that it could only be created under divine inspiration. Salieri’s music is mundane, Spirit-less, Mozart’s music is miraculous, spiritual, infused by the Holy Spirit (pneumatic). The former’s music is of this world, the latter’s is outworldly – “the very voice of God! […] an absolute, inimitable beauty.” (Amadeus’s script).

Salieri feels cheated by God. He thought he did everything to be rewarded but God chose Amadeus who did not deserve this honour. Infuriated by God’s injustice, he apparently poisons Mozart in order to take revenge on God. Salieri probes into the nature of divinity and comes to conclusion that God is not on the side of ordinary men whose talents are either non-existent or limited. Disgusted with God’s injustice and frivolity, he creates a new church for mediocrities and sees himself as a pope of the masses. The film ends with his benediction and absolution to all people of modest intellect and unremarkable talents.

In the film’s final scene, Salieri talks to the camera. He is addressing the audience which he assumes is composed of people like himself – talentless mediocrities abandoned by God. Their only salvation is to replace God as an object of (self) adoration. Salieri is oblivious to the fact that he moves through a crowd of patients in a mental asylum.

I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. On their behalf I deny Him, your God of no mercy. Your God who tortures men with longings they can never fulfil. He may forgive me: I shall never forgive Him.
Mediocrities everywhere, now and to come: I absolve you all! Amen! Amen! Amen!


Theologically speaking, Salieri is guilty of Pelagianism. Pelagius (circa AD 360 – 418) rejected the concept of grace, maintaining that salvation is attained primarily by good deeds. For Salieri, God is the “Old Bargainer” and, therefore, God is not free to bestow His favours on whoever He chooses. However, when Salieri meets Mozart, he realises that God’s sovereignty is limitless. Pushkin, Shaffer and Forman reaffirm the role of grace in salvation. Amadeus is the reaffirmation of God’s freedom.

As a historical personality, Mozart is well suited to illustrate epochal changes occurring at the end of the eighteenth century. At that time, Europe was being reshaped politically, socially and artistically. The French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic era can be seen as the apogee of the Enlightenment but also as the first phase of Romanticism. Mozart belongs to Classicism in the history of music but he can also be perceived as a proto-Romantic. He lived in a period of transition, between Haydn and Beethoven. James H. Donelan writes in Poetry and the Romantic Musical Aesthetic that

Just as Kant, above all others, was the origin of the move of metaphysics toward aesthetics, so Mozart was the origin of the movement of music toward an elevated status as the highest of the arts. […] For some critics, Mozart was the quintessential Enlightenment composer, eminently reasonable, demonstrating a cool, mathematical perfection in everything he wrote. For others, Mozart was the proto-Romantic genius, erratic, uncontrollable, and destined to an early, impoverished end.

In Amadeus, three forms of transformation are occurring, namely the transformation from Classicism to Romanticism in musical aesthetics, the transformation of the concept of God as watchmaker into a God as a free creator, and the transformation of the society through the process of secularisation in politics.

In Romanticism, aesthetics is being infused with metaphysics. Music acquires religious dimension. Salvation occurs through art. E. T. A. Hoffmann writes in “Beethovens Instrumentalmusik” that music leads us out of life and into the realm of the infinite.

Music discloses to man an uncharted realm: a world that has absolutely nothing in common with the external, empirical world, a world that comprehensively encircles its empirical counterpart, a world to which the latter abandons all distinct sensations for the sake of surrendering itself to an inexpressible yearning.

Music gives us access to Being in its totality, without the mediation of Logos. The experience of Being cannot be verbalised: the truth about the Absolute and the Infinite can only be sung. Hence the role of music as as the highest of the arts. Music shows us how things really are; it is a phenomenal representation of the noumenal. The truth about the world is non-verbal. Music expresses Harmonia mundi by mystically conveying to us the meaning of the universe.

Mozart is Die Zauberflote, the flute of God. At the performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, Salieri says “I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theatre, conferring on all who sat there a perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world.”

The role of music changes in Romanticism because the concept of God is also changing. God is no longer a watchmaker who designed the universe as a giant mechanism, instituted the laws of Nature and then withdrew from the world. During the Enlightenment, God was essentially perceived as deified Necessity. Romanticism turned Him into an artist, if not a musician, who is free as a creator of the world. Feelings, not reason, permeate the world which is no longer a mechanism but a living organism. Salieri talks to God who does not answer. God uses arts in general and music in particular as a means of communion with His creation.


Amadeus is also about politics. It represents the political and social transformation which occurred during the French Revolution when subjects of a monarch, who was anointed with divine legitimacy, emancipated themselves and became free citizens. In feudalism, earthly political arrangements were the reflection of a heavenly order where God was not unlike a monarch in heaven. When feudalism crumbles, God also is being dethroned. Linda Woodhead writes in Christianity that

the modern world comes into being when power, rather than being seen as the possession of sovereigns and monarchs (earthly and heavenly) to whom individuals must submit their lives, comes to be seen as the possession of each individual subject. Since each one is sovereign in his or her own right, power is now thought to come from below, and to be bestowed by ‘the people’ on their rulers, rather than the other way round.

There are hints of things to come in Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, where servants are no longer satisfied with their lot. Die Zauberflote is even more subversive. Mozart was a Catholic and a Mason which was not an unusual combination at that time. He used Die Zauberflote as a platform to express his belief in the coming brotherhood of men.


The desire of an individual to free himself from the constrains imposed by the society is arguably the main preoccupation of Forman in all his films. It is also the main subject of Shaffer’s plays.

However, the matter of social and political emancipation is more complicated. At the end of the film, Salieri heralds the advent of a world without God, without art, and without metaphysics. This will be the world of Salieris in which there will be no place for Mozarts. Strangely enough, Salieri makes his prediction in a mental asylum.

His world is meant to be a utopia but it turns out as a dystopia. Equality seems to be inherently connected with mediocrity. This connection has been examined by many thinkers including Dostoevsky (Legend of the Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov), Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), de Tocqueville (Democracy in America) and Ortega y Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses).

Amadeus is a rare case of a successful film adaptation of a play which satisfied both the playwright and the film director. It seems that Shaffer and Forman had similar views about the world and both loved music as an art with metaphysical connotations.

The film itself is constructed as an opera. Music is not just an illustration added to a story but carries the plot and provides an interpretation of the events shown on the screen. Discontinuous editing is used by Forman to emphasise the structural role played by music. The role of fragments of Mozart’s operas is to signal different stages in Mozart’s life, from Die Entführung aus dem Serail (courtship), through Le nozze di Figaro (marriage) and Don Giovanni (Mozart’s relationship with his father), to Die Zauberflöte (Mozart’s message to the world). The film ends with the Requiem which serves as premonition of Mozart’s own death.


According to W. H. Auden, “No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” The same can be said about Amadeus. Its story is not very sensible. There is no evidence that Salieri poisoned Mozart, Salieri was not a mediocrity, and Mozart was not a mythical artist who composed without any effort, almost an idiot-savant. Like in operas, the plot in Amadeus is subservient to music.

Formally, Amadeus is as artificial as any opera. Its meaning though is deep intellectually and engaging emotionally. Opera is a drama through music not merely a drama with music, and so is Amadeus.

Opera is an Italian invention and therefore necessarily connected with Catholicism. One can go as far as claiming a link between religion and opera. Elaborate liturgy of the Catholic mass is not unlike the spectacle of an opera whose aim is to dazzle the spectator. Seen from this perspective, opera is a secularised mass. A Baroque church is not that different from an opera stage.

Forman turned Shaffer’s cerebral play into a dazzling spectacle. He used Baroque interiors in his native Czechoslovakia to emphasise the role of visual sensitivity in Catholic Europe. Amadeus is a highly successful marriage of psychological depth of Shaffer’s play with Forman’s visual imagination. Amadeus has not lost its power since it was first shown in cinemas in 1984. It often appears on the lists of best films ever made.



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Polish cinema. A list of 77 films


Mocny czlowiek / Strong Man (1929, Henryk Szaro)



Młody Las / The Young Forest (1934, Józef Lejtes)


Barbara Radziwiłłówna (1936)

Barbara Radziwiłłówna (1936, Józef Lejtes)



Dybuk / The Dybbuk (1937, Michał Waszyński)



Strachy / Bogeymen (1938, Eugeniusz Cękalski)


Czarne diamenty (1939)

Czarne diamenty / Black Diamonds (1939, Jerzy Gabryelski)



Zakazane piosenki / Forbidden Songs (1947, Leonard Buczkowski)



Ostatni etap / The Last Stage (1947, Wanda Jakubowska)


ulica graniczna

Ulica Graniczna / Border Street (1948, Aleksander Ford)



Pokolenie / A Generation (1954, Andrzej Wajda)



Kanał / Sewer (1956, Andrzej Wajda)



Cień / Shadow (1956, Jerzy Kawalerowicz)



Popiół i diament / Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda)



Pozegnania / Farewells (1958, Wojciech Has)



Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie / The Saragossa Manuscript (1958, Wojciech Has)



Eroica (1958, Andrzej Munk)



Lotna (1959, Andrzej Wajda)



Pociąg / Night Train (1959, Jerzy Kawalerowicz)



Baza ludzi umarlych / The Depot of the Dead (1959, Czesław Petelski)



Do widzenia, do jutra… / Good bye, till tomorrow (1960, Janusz Morgenstern)



Krzyżacy / Knights of the Teutonic Order (1960, Aleksander Ford)


Niewinni czarodzieje 1-F-283-122

Niewinni czarodzieje / Innocent Sorcerers (1960, andrzej Wajda)



Zezowate szczęście / Bad Luck (Polish (1960, Andrzej Munk)



Świadectwo urodzenia / Birth Certificate (1961, Stanisław Różewicz)



Matka Joanna od Aniołów / Mother Joan of the Angels (1961, Jerzy Kawalerowicz)



Nóż w wodzie / Knife in the Water (1962, Roman Polański)



Jak być kochaną / How to be Loved (1963, Wojciech Has)



Pasażerka / Passenger (1963, Andrzej Munk)



Rysopis / Identification Marks: None (1965, Jerzy Skolimowski)



Salto (1965, Tadeusz Konwicki)



Faraon / Pharaoh (1966, Jerzy Kawalerowicz)



Westerplatte (1967, Stanisław Różewicz)



Lalka / The Doll (1968, Wojciech Has)



Struktura kryształu / The Structure of Crystal (1969, Krzysztof Zanussi)



Sól ziemi czarnej / Salt of the Black Earth (1970, Kazimierz Kutz)



Wszystko na sprzedaż / Everything for Sale (1969, Andrzej Wajda)



Brzezina / The Birch Wood (1970, Andrzej Wajda)



Rejs / The Cruise (1970, directed by Marek Piwowski)



Lokis. Rękopis profesora Wittembacha / Lokis. A Manuscript of Professor Wittembach (1970, Janusz Majewski)



Trzecia część nocy / The Third Part of the Night (1971, Andrzej Żuławski)



Życie rodzinne / Family Life (1971, Krzysztof Zanussi



Diabeł / The Devil (1972, Andrzej Żuławski)



Jak daleko stad, jak blisko / How Far Away, How Near (1972, Tadeusz Konwicki)



Wesele /The Wedding (1972, Andrzej Wajda)


na wylot

Na wylot / Through and Through (1973, Grzegorz Krolikiewicz)



Sanatorium pod klepsydrą / The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973, Wojciech Has)



Iluminacja / The Illumination (1973, Krzysztof Zanussi)



Chłopi / The Peasants (1973, Jan Rybkowski)



Zazdrość i medycyna / (1973, Janusz Majewski)



Potop / The Deluge (1974, Jerzy Hoffman)



Zaklęte rewiry / Hotel Pacific (1975, Janusz Majewski)



Ziemia obiecana / The Promised Land (1975, Andrzej Wajda)


Czlowiek z marmuru 1-F-155-19

Człowiek z marmuru / Man of Marble (1976, Andrzej Wajda)



Dzieje grzechu / The Story of Sin (1975, Walerian Borowczyk)



Barwy ochronne / Camouflage (1976, Krzysztof Zanussi)



Przepraszam, czy tu biją? / Foul Play (1976, Marek Piwowski)



Tańczący jastrząb / The Dancing Hawk (1977, Grzegorz Krolikiewicz)



Wodzirej / Top Dog (1977, Feliks Falk)



Zmory / Nightmares (1978, Wojciech Marczewski)



Bez znieczulenia / Without Anesthesia (1978, Andrzej Wajda)



Panny z Wilka / The Maids of Wilko (1979, Andrzej Wajda)



Szpital Przemienienia / Hospital of the Transfiguration (1979, Edward Żebrowski)



Lekcja martwego języka / A Lesson of Dead Language (1979, Janusz Majewski)



Amator / Camera Buff (1979, Krzysztof Kieślowski)



Miś / Teddy Bear (1980, Stanisław Bareja)



Dreszcze / Shivers (1981, Wojciech Marczewski)



Vabank (1981, Juliusz Machulski)



Gorączka / Fever (1981, Agnieszka Holland)



Austeria / The Inn (1983, Jerzy Kawalerowicz)



Danton (1983, Andrzej Wajda)



Seksmisja / Sexmission (1984, Juliusz Machulski)



Krótki film o zabijaniu / Short Film About Killing (1988, Krzysztof Kieślowski)


on the silver

Na srebrnym globie / On the Silver Globe (1988, Andrzej Żuławski)



Ucieczka z kinaWolność / Escape from the ‘Liberty’ Cinema (1990, Wojciech Marczewski)



Sztuczki / Tricks (2007, Andrzej Jakimowski)



Pianista / The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski)



Sala Samobójców / Suicide Room (2011, Jan Komasa)

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Reymont’s Peasants, Autumn (fragments with illustrations)



Stanislaw Witkiewicz Tillage 1875

Pulling the silver bright share out of the furrow, he deftly lifted up the plough, swung the horses round, and thrust the shining steel into the earth again. At a crack of the whip, the horses set tugging till the crossbar creaked again; and on they went, ploughing away at the great strip of land which, stretching out at right angles to the road, descended the slope, and, not unlike the woof of some coarse hempen stuff, ran down as far as the low-lying hamlet nestling amongst the red and yellow leaves of its orchards.


Józef Chełmoński Indian summer 1875

It was near the end of autumn, but the weather was still warm and rather drowsy. The sun was still hot enough and, hanging in the south-west above the woods, made the shrubs and the pear-trees, and even the hard, dry clods, cast strong, cold shadows. Ineffable sweetness and serenity reigned in the air, full of golden haze of sunlit dust over the fields lately harvested; while above in the azure heaven, enormous white clouds floated here and there like great wind-tormented snow-drifts.


Józef Chełmoński Storks 1900

Here and there, the ground was still being ploughed for sowing. On the fallows a herd of brindled cows was feeding. The ashen-grey hue of certain lands was beginning to take on a ruddy tint from the blades of corn already sprouting there. On the close-cropped, tawny grass of the meadows, the geese showed up like white snowflakes. A cow was heard lowing afar. Fires had been lit, and long blue clouds of smoke trailed over the cornfields.


Leon Wyczółkowski Sower 1896

Elsewhere harrows were at work, a dim cloud of dust rising in the wake of each and settling down at the foot of the hills. From beneath it, coming as it were out of a cloud, a bareheaded, barefooted peasant, with a cloth full of corn tied round his waist, was pacing leisurely, taking handfuls of grain and scattering them all over the earth with a solemn gesture, as one bestowing a blessing. On reaching the end of the ploughed fields, he would turn and slowly ascend the slope, his shock of touzled hair first appearing above the skyline, then his shoulders, and finally his whole body, still with the same solemn gesture, the sower’s benediction, that shed forth upon the soil, a holy thing as it were – the golden seed which fell in a semicircle round him.


Gustaw Gwozdecki Moon circa 1908

Night had already enshrouded the earth. The stars glistened in the sky’s sombre depths like silver dew-drops, and all was still, save for an occasional bark of a dog or two. Faintly and far between, a few lights twinkled athwart the orchard trees, and now and then a breath of damp air blew up from the meadows, making the boughs wave slightly and their leaves whisper soft sounds […] The moon, now in her full, had risen above the forest trees, silvering their tops, throwing its radiance through their boughs and upon the pond, and peeping down into the cottage windows. The dogs no longer barked. An unfathomable stillness had settled over the village and over all nature.


Józef Chełmoński Road in the forest 1887

The forest was very old and very great. It stood, compact and thick, in the majesty of age and strength combined. Nearly all the trees were pines; but not unfrequently an ancient spreading oak would appear, or some birches, in their smocks of white bark, let their tangled yellow foliage float in the air. The lower growths – the hazelnut, the dwarf hornbeam, and the trembling aspen – were crowded around the mighty red pine-trunks, so closely and with branches so intertwined, that the sunbeams could but seldom touch the ground, where they seemed to be crawling, like bright-hued insects, over the mosses and reddish faded ferns.


Włodzimierz Tetmajer Procession in Bronowice 1900

Intoning the hymn, the Celebrant slowly descended the altar-steps and into the lane at once formed for him – a lane of singers, of flickering lights, and gaudy colours, and droning voices. The procession began to move, the organ thundered mightily, the bells joined in with clamorous uproar, and the congregation took up the chant with voices raised in the grand unison of faith. In front of the crowd, and of the twinkling sinuous lines of tapers moving on, there gleamed a silver crucifix; following this came the holy images, dimly seen through a haze of cambric, and surrounded with flowers and lace and ornaments of tinsel.



Józef Chełmoński In front of the inn 1876

More and more people had by now thronged into the tavern, for the twilight had deepened, and the lamps were lit. The music sounded to a quicker measure; the noise waxed loud; the folk formed groups around the bar, or along the walls, or in the centre of the room. They talked, gossiped, grumbled; and some drank one to another. But as a rule this was at rare intervals. For how could they do otherwise ? They had not come to carouse, but only – well, so : to meet in a neighbourly way, and confabulate, and learn what there was to be learned. It was Sunday, and there was surely no sin in indulging one’s curiosity a little, and drinking a few glasses here and there with one’s acquaintances.



 Stanisław Masłowski Moonrise 1884

The moon, large and splendid, was floating through the dark space; like silver nails in the firmament, a few stars shone, sparsely scattered about; a thin grey tissue of mist hung over the pond like a veil, and waved its folds above the village. The world had entered into that unfathomable quiet of the autumn night, save that the few who were going home sang as they went, and dogs were heard to bark now and then.


Roman Kochanowski Beggar circa 1905

Beggars too, now passed through the village more and more frequently; not only those of the usual kind, who went from house to house with their cavernous wallets and their lengthy prayers, and at whose approach the house-dogs always fell a-baying; but also certain others of a very different sort. These had travelled much and far, to many holy places; they knew Chenstohova, and Ostrobrama, and Kalvarya well, and in the long evenings they would willingly entertain the village folk by tales of what was going on in the world, and the strange things done in foreign parts. And there were some who told of the Holy Land, and related such marvels about the vast seas they had crossed, and the adventures which had befallen them, that the people listened in pious amazement, and more than one could scarcely believe that such things could be.

Józef Chełmoński The rain 1873

Ah, it was autumn, late autumn now! Neither rollicking songs, nor merry shouts, nor even the chirruping of little birds, could be heard in the village any more: only the blast howling over the thatched roofs, the icy rain pouring glass-like films down the rattling panes, and the quick dull thudding of the flails on the threshing-floors, which grew daily louder and louder. It was indeed Autumn, the mother of Winter.


A livid whirling downpour had covered the land, taken all colour out of it, quenched its tints, and plunged the world into twilight. All seemed confused, and as in a dream.

Józef Chełmoński Thunderstorm 1896


Henryk Weyssenhoff Premonition 1893

A sadness rose up from the mouldering fields, from the palsy-stricken woods, from the dead wilderness; thence it floated like a heavy cloud, lingering about the melancholy cross-ways, under the crucifixes which stretched forth their mournful arms and on the waste roads, where the trees would suddenly quake as with dread, and sob as if in anguish; it looked with vacant stare into each deserted nest, and on each fallen cabin; it crept about the burial-places around the graves of the forgotten dead and the decaying crosses; it spread over all the country.


 Józef Chełmoński The departure of cranes 1870

And still the flocks of birds increased, even to the dismay and stupefaction of the people; for now they flew lower, ever in vaster multitudes, sprinkling the sky as with scattered specks of soot; and the dull flapping and croaking were now louder, more boisterous, more turbulent—like a storm that is drawing nigh. They swept in circles over the village : and as a heap of dead leaves the blast plays with, so they wheeled over the ploughed lands, floated down to the woods, hung above the skeleton poplar-trees, took possession of the lindens round about the church, and perched upon the trees in the burial-ground.




Stanisław Dębicki A prayer 1887

“ All must die ! ” they muttered, in tones of torpid palsy-stricken resignation, and went on further, to sit by the graves of their fathers, and either recite orisons, or remain motionless, in a reverie that deadened both love of life and fear of death – aye, and even abhorrence of pain. They were like trees, bowing Iow in the blast; and, like them, their souls quivered slumberously : dismayed, yet benumbed. “ O my Jesus ! O merciful Lord ! O Mary ! ”- such were the ejaculations which burst forth from their tormented souls. They raised their faces – now expressionless with grief – and fixed their hollow eyes on the crosses, and on those trees in drowsy yet perpetual motion: and falling on their knees at the feet of the crucified Christ, they laid before Him their fear-stricken hearts, and shed tears of resignation and self-surrender.



Ludwik de Laveaux Paupers’ funeral 1889

There the forgotten ones lay – those whose very memory had perished long ago, with their days, and the times they lived in, and all the past. There, only ill- omened birds uttered hoarse croakings, and the bushes rustled mournfully near some cross of rotting wood that still remained standing here and there. In this forgotten nook lay side by side whole families, hamlets, generations : no one came there to pray, to shed tears, to light lamps any more. The gale alone blew fiercely through the boughs, tore off the last of their leaves, and tossed them away into the night, to be lost therein. And voices howled that were not voices; and shadows moved—but were they only shadows ? — striking at random against the trees, as though they had been blinded birds, and seeming to moan and beg for pity!


Wincenty Wodzinowski A familiar tune 1889

Together they marched, shoulder to shoulder, down the middle of the road, the ground echoing under the tramping of their boots : with such merry dare-devil looks, and so gaiły adorned, that they killed the whole scene – a vision of striped trousers glancing in the sun, of scarlet jackets, hats decked with bunches of floating ribbons, and white capotes, open and flapping in the breeze like wings. Uttering shrill cries, and humming joyful tunes, on they dashed, tramping noisily in measure – a young pine-grove in motion and rushing with the blast! The musicians played polonaises, going from hut to hut to cali the wedding guests; here vodka was offered them; there they were asked in; elsewhere a song would answer to their tunes; while on all sides the folk came out, dressed in their best raiment, and went swelling the main body.



Fryderyk Pautsch Newlyweds 1910

In the midst of this crimson conflagration they walked on slowly. It made the eyes blink to see them as they went – with ribbons and peacock plumes and flowers; gay in red trousers, petticoats of orange tints, rainbow kerchiefs, snowy capotes : just as if a whole field full of flowers in bloom had arisen and moved forward, swaying in the wind ! Aye, and singing too !



Teodor Axentowicz Kolomyjka 1895

The musicians had struck up for the greatest performance of all; and forward now came the dancers, and the trampling of many feet was heard. They crowded thickly, couple close to couple, cheek by jowl, moving ever more swiftly as the dance went on. Capotes flew open and flapped wide, heels stamped, hats waved – now and then a snatch of song burst forth – the girls hummed the burden, “ da dana,” and tore on more quickly still, and swayed in measure in the mighty, swirling, headlong rush ! No one could any longer distinguish his neighbour in the throng; and when the violins burst forth in quick sharp volleys of clean-cut separate notes, a hundred feet echoed on the floor at once, a hundred mouths gave tongue, a hundred dancers, seized as by a cyclone, whirled round and round; and the rustling of capotes, skirts, kerchiefs waving about the room, was like the flight of a flock of many-coloured birds. On they went, on continually – dancing without the slightest pause for breath, the floor clattering like a drum, the walls vibrating, the room a seething cauldron. And the rapture of the dance waxed greater, greater yet.


(The full text of Ladislas Reymont Peasants (Autumn) can be found at























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Picnic at Hanging Rock


Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock shows the fragility of civilisation. Both the film and Joan Lindsay’s eponymous novel (1967), on which the film is based, suggest that beneath the thin veneer of civilisation in general, and the British civilisation in particular, there exists a volcano of emotions and irrational urges, ready to erupt any time.

The film starts ominously with an image of the Hanging Rock, a volcanic formation which towers above the pastoral landscape in the vicinity of Melbourne, in the state of Victoria. On Saturday, 14 February 1900, St Valentine’s Day, a group of excited girls is leaving the Appleyard College for a picnic at the rock which is already a tourist attraction. Victoria is at that time still a British colony, just before it becomes part of the Commonwealth of Australia, a federation of all colonies on mainland Australia and Tasmania which is inaugurated on 1 January 1901.


By leaving the college, the girls are venturing into the Australian wilderness where their Britishness will be confronted with the unknown and the primeval, both in nature and in themselves. They live in the best of all possible worlds, in the age of steam and steel, in a colony which is part of the mighty British empire. What can possibly go wrong?

“The dark side of this faith in progress and British civilisation was the fear of the primitive or the elemental, whether in nature or in human beings”, writes Beverley Kingston in The Oxford History of Australia. Australians were aware that they lived at the frontiers of civilisation. Nature in Australia is unforgiving – life was a constant struggle for the colonials, with men and women being exposed to oppressive heat, venomous snakes, obnoxious insects, bushfires, floods, draughts, back-breaking work on the land and the risk of being lost in the forest. Unlike England, Australia was a frontier country, a mysterious place “where anything can happen”.

To go for a picnic in the bush is therefore a risky enterprise, especially when the place is dangerous both in the physical and metaphysical sense. Lindsay describes the rock as a “living monster”. Weir uses sound, music and unusual camera angles to show the rock as a mysterious and threatening place. The Victorian propriety and prudishness, embodied in the institution of the English picnic, are severely tested in an environment entirely alien to civilisation. Nature awakens primeval and atavistic feelings in those susceptible to metaphysical emotions.


In many cultures, mountains and rocks are considered as sacred places. Volcanic outcrops are particularly suitable to be treated as such because of their connection with the depths of the earth. As the Hanging Rock was formed by molten lava that once erupted from beneath the earth, it now has the power to free human emotions from the bondage of reason and reveal that what is hidden in human psyche. The rock is a place of revelation of timeless truths to those who are elected to receive them. One must be prepared to abandon the Cartesian world of Nature arranged according to mathematical formulas, of linear time, uniform space and natural causality. The rock is the “geographical manifestation of the divine”, “axis mundi, rooted deeply in the netherworld” (Diana L. Eck).

In the novel and in the film, the first sign of the rock’s magical powers is that the watches stop exactly at midday. Then everyone becomes sleepy and melancholic. The oneiric atmosphere of the picnic is suggested by the slow movement of the camera, showing one dreamy face after another.


The film starts with a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem A dream within a dream, “All that we see or seem Is but a dream within a dream”, and ends with the scene showing the girls ascending the rock, in slow motion, frame by frame.


The culmination of the story is the disappearance of three girls whom we see entering the narrow opening among the boulders. The fourth girl is left behind as she is immune to the magical powers of the rock. She is grounded firmly in the material world, unable to see the unseen and to touch the non-tangible. Only those elected will receive revelation; the fourth girl is barred from the contact with the divine because she is fat, ugly and stupid, and too attached to the world of ordinary matters. For her, the rock has nothing mysterious “It’s nasty here; I’ve never thought it would be so nasty or I wouldn’t have come”.


Strangely enough, the rock is also irresistible to old spinster Miss McCraw who teaches mathematics at the college and lives in the “world of pure uncluttered reason”. At one moment she reads a treatise on mathematics and at another one she ascends the rock with no skirt and only in her “pantalons”. A knowledge of arithmetic does not help in the bush, observes one of the novel’s characters. McCraw’s “masculine intellect” could not protect her from the powers of emotions. “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing” (Pascal).

The mystical union with the sacred can only occur when those called for such a union take off some of their clothes so the contact with the divine is unmediated by vestiges of civilisation. First, the girls take off their gloves, then their shoes and stockings which are the visible signs of their inhibitions. The most scandalous is that, when one of the girls is found after a week spent at the rock, she is without a corset.


Being unveils itself in its totality only to those willing to strip themselves of everyday habits and to take off the corset of civilisation that alienates them from nature.

From the very beginning, the matter of the girls’ disappearance has ecstatic and erotic overtones. The picnic takes place on St Valentine’s Day. The girls are excited because the excursion means for them an escape from the reglamented life and the “suffocating routine of the college”. Erotic tension abounds in the college. The girls are infatuated with each other and one of the teachers is also drawn into the world of homoerotic phantasy.

… for [the Mademoiselle] la petite Irma could do no wrong. The girl’s voluptuous little breasts, her dimples, full red lips, naughty black eyes and glossy black ringlets, were a continual source of aesthetic pleasure.

The girls are still virginal and innocent, which is emphasised by the whiteness of their dress, but their sexuality is about to be awaken. In the novel, Lindsey only hints at the girls’ budding sexuality while Weir shows the girls wandering among phallic boulders and vaginal caves.


Eros is shown as something alluring and mesmerising but also dangerous and threatening, with two girls and Miss McCraw remaining on the rock and never been found, presumably dead. It seems that Eros is close to Thanatos.

The girl who miraculously escaped death is no longer dressed in white but wears a red outfit when she appears in the college as a visitor. Her new dress suggests that she is a woman now. Her appearance triggers an outburst of teenage hysteria among the girls who want to know what happened on the rock.


And yet the rescued girl is unable to express what she experienced on the rock. Her experience transcends human understanding. The mysticism of love cannot be verbalised. It is part of ultimate reality which is hidden and can only be accessed outside of ordinary time and space, and where logic is suspended.

In the film, the sacralisation of love is the same as the sacralisation of nature. Weir states that “For me, the grand theme was Nature, and even the girls’ sexuality was as much a part of that as the lizard crawling across the top of the rock. They were part of the same whole”

The college is an outpost of British civilisation in an alien world of the antipodes. From the very beginnings, the colonists in Australia were aware that an enormous effort was required of them to domesticate this terra incognita.


Picnic at Hanging Rock is also the story of this struggle in an educational establishment for young colonial girls who are taught how to be British. And yet the college is already an anachronism in 1900. The Victorian era is about to end. The novel begins with the picnic on 14 February 1900 and ends with the death of the owner of the college, Mrs Appleyard, on 27 March 1900. The Australian colonies would become less British by forming a federation on 1 January 1901. Queen Victoria dies shortly after on 22 January 1901.


Mrs Appleyard epitomises Victorian virtues. She represents restraint, propriety, correct manners, self-reliance and unsentimental attitude towards the world. Her students are taught how to repress their feelings. She is a Victorian matron par excellence, meticulously dressed, and not unlike Queen Victoria herself. Like the queen, who lost her beloved husband Prince Consort Albert forty years before her own death, Mrs Appleyard is also in mourning for her late husband, Arthur.

…her high-piled greying pompadour and ample bosom, as rigidly controlled and disciplined as her private ambitions, the cameo portrait of her late husband flat on her respectable chest, the stately stranger looked precisely what the parents expected of an English Headmistress.


Mrs Appleyard’s role is to alienate her students from their natural inclinations. Her attitude to Nature is scientific. No contact with Nature is desirable unless it is mediated by scientific instruments. Nature in the college appears only as dead specimens of insects and plants in wooden cabinets.

She knew no more of nature than a scarecrow rigid on a broomstick above a field of waving corn. She who had lived so close to the little forest on the Bendigo Road had never felt the short wiry grass underfoot. Never walked between the straight shaggy stems of the stingybark trees. Never paused to savour the jubilant gusts of spring that carried the scent of wattle and eucalypt right into the front hall of the college.

Ironically, she walks on the grass after years of walking on asphalt, linoleum and carpets only in the moment before her death, when she throws herself into a precipice at Hanging Rock.

Even before her death, Mrs Appleyard was dead emotionally. She had failed to recognise that one cannot live by science alone. Both the novel and the film suggest that science kills what it examines. Conceptual knowledge of the world alienates us from the world’s true nature.


Picnic at Hanging Rock also deals with the problem of nascent nationalism in Australia. In 1900, Australia’s political character was about to change from being a collection of British colonies, separated by vast distances from each other, to an awkward entity which was the result of the fusion of Australian nationalism and British imperialism. Australia became a federation of British colonies within the British empire. This “fused identity between nation and Empire” (Paul Kelly) is represented in the novel and the film by the two main male characters – Michael, a recent immigrant from England, and Albert, a native-born coachman.


Initially, they are divided by their class, upbringing, garments, habits and language but they are gradually becoming mates to a degree verging on homoeroticism. Albert is a “currency lad”, a simple and decent young man whose character is as colorful as his language. Michael belongs to an ancient and illustrious family in Britain and therefore could be referred to as “sterling”. Michael is well-mannered and expresses himself in cultivated British English while Albert speaks with a broad Australian accent. He uses words such as “bloody” and phrases such as “can’t be more a midday”, “in donkey’s years”, “I’m buggered”, “what the hell for” and “you are a funny bugger”. Albert and Michael are becoming mates through a gradual process involving drinking wine from one battle, and Michael switching to vernacular expressions and dressing less formally.


The most dramatic change occurs at the Hanging Rock when Michael spends a night there in an attempt to find the lost girls and, in turn, has to be rescued by Albert. Michael undergoes the rite of passage at the rock. He becomes a true Australian mate by willing to risk his life to help others. He is initiated into the Australian nation in which nationality is an extension of mateship. Weir expressed the same idea in his later film Gallipoli which depicts a tragic campaign in the Dardanelles in 1915. The battle has since served as the foundation myth of Australia.

It may escape the viewer’s attention that Albert calls cooee when searching for Michael on the rock. The cry was once heard quite often in the bush. Geoffrey Blainey describes the cooee as “one of the first of the consciously nationalist calls […] perhaps the first national anthem”.


Picnic at Hanging Rock combines elements of mystery and history with metaphysical reflection. This is arguably the best Australian film, as interesting now as it was at the time of its creation.


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(This is an  abridged fragment of Maria Rzepinska Siedem wiekow malarstwa europejskiego. The translation is mine).



Jean-Honore Fragonard The Swing 1767

In the eighteenth century, freethought and fashion for atheism in society led to the secularisation of painting. This does not mean that  religious art disappeared altogether. Churches and monasteries were still built and there was still a need for religious paintings and decorative art. But what is the most original and most creative in painting of the eighteenth century is of worldly nature. The spirit of sacred solemnity vanishes from religious paintings. Artists lose interest in ancient myths which had been the subject of art for centuries.


Jean Marc Nattier The Lovers 1744

Mythology became merely an aesthetic pretext. In comparison with the seventeenth century, the Rococo style of painting is less serious. It is also less inventive in terms of technique. Rococo is the last historical style, compact and uniform, covering all artistic disciplines, costume, life-style, and the arrangement of urban space. It did not last long and new trends emerged around 1760, stemming from a different aesthetic attitude, as well as from new social and moral tendencies. Some historians consider Rococo to be the last phase of Baroque but the former is different from the latter in many aspects, including asymmetry and caprice as aesthetic principles and a radical  change in the treatment of colour. Historians argue whether Rococo emerged in in France or Italy, with Borromini often being considered as the precursor of this new style. However, there is no doubt that interior decoration and Rococo painting are an expression of French culture, strictly speaking the culture of French aristocratic salons. Rococo is closely associated with the leisure class – a social class with a sophisticated and refined taste.  There is neither populism nor naivety in Rococo, whereas they often can be found in Baroque.



Antoine Watteau Pilgrimage to Cythera , 1718–1721


Rococo is the style of a social class at the top of its power.  Women played a particularly important role in the society of the eighteenth century. Painting, furniture and interior design are all feminine.  Rococo is the style of grace rather than strength and dignified gravity. It is significant that this epoch gave us more female than male portraits.





Francois Boucher Diana Leaving the Bath 1742


The time of artistic hegemony of Italy had passed. France dictated how people dressed and what they thought in Europe.  It is France that gave the world Watteau, Boucher, Chardin and Fragonard. The French language became the common language among educated classes. France is the home of Rococo, and there the feminine character of this style was particularly strong. In painting, colours became brighter while darker shades  disappeared. Tenebrism was rejected as unbecoming and old-fashioned; graceful demeanour, dance, flirt, carnival – everything that served hedonism – came to the forefront. Portraits of members of the court and the great allegorical paintings with courtly themes were still painted, but they were considered anachronistic.





Jean-Honore Fragonard The Stolen Kiss, late 1780s


The quarrel of Poussinists and Rubenists ended with the victory of the latter. French painters opted for continuing the tradition of the sensual, lush and colourful Flemish painting, re-interpreting it in an original way. What is most interesting in the painting of this time is the emphasis on the life of the rich and elegant groups of the French society who were shown as being more interested in charms and pleasures of existence than in wealth and social position. Changes in architecture influenced to a certain extent the style of painting which became more private, graceful, intimate, and devoid of rigid ceremonialism and pomposity. Small cozy interiors, charming salons and boudoirs dictated a particular range of themes, figures, and formats. In addition to oil painting, pastel drawing was also very popular. Artists used a range of pastels that were bright and chalky, with artwork often resembling oil painting. Baroque’s limited palette of chromatic pigments and a wide range of colours was replaced in Rococo by light, bright and cool colours, with a lot of white, pearly and pigeon shades, and a wide range of tones of blue, from azure to pervenche.




Jean François de Troy Declaration of Love 1731


New colours were used, including violet, peach and willow-green – sometimes bleachy and greyish, sometimes clean and cheerful, but almost always bright. A new form of painting emerged, namely paintings painted on canvas and fixed on the wall, shaped to fit the architectural space, often capricious and irregular, placed as overdoors or between the windows or mirrors.




Nicolas Lancret La Camargo Dancing, c. 1730


Painters often used the oval form for portraiture, which was not used before. The artists, even of the prominence of Boucher, were not averse to painting fans, crating designs for screens, furniture or upholstery. In the sixteenth century, painters show little interest in architecture or sculpture, preferring decorative and applied arts. The fashion for the Chinese art and culture, which was triggered by the interest in porcelain and lacquerware, found its fullest expression in applied art although it could also be found in some easel paintings. In Boucher’s paintings, for example, we can find Chinese motives such as local characters, clothes and pagodas, although they are often far from being realistic.


Francois Boucher Chinese Garden (detail) 1742

Theatre was particularly popular. All social groups enjoyed all kinds of performances including comic opera, ballet, farce, pantomime and vaudeville. In Paris, alongside the French comedy, the Italian comedy was also highly popular. The latter, banished during the reign of Louis XIV, reappeared in France  in 1716, during the period of Regence. The Italian commedia dell’arte served as a source of inspiration for some of the most interesting French paintings of the time. The return of the Italian actors to Paris rekindled the interest in the mystery and the beauty of masks and costumes, and the characters of the Harlequin, Mezzetino, Il Dottore and Colombina.  Important motifs were the traditional “four masks of Italian comedy” (described by Goldoni in his memoirs), as well as from the Venetian carnival.



Nicolas Lancret Actors of the Comedie-Italienne

The themes from the theatre and ballet often appear in the paintings of Gillot, Watteau and Lancret. These painters not only paint objects from theatrical performances in their physical form but they also treat masks, lipstick, wigs and various forms of disguise to convey meaningful subtexts which are not always cheerful. These objects changed the formula for painting the human figure which became dissociated from the ancient model.




Antoine Watteau Pierrot, 1718–1719



The landscape in Rococo paintings is theatrical, imaginary and tapestry-like rather than realistic. Nature in Rococo is pastoral and idyllic, and never harsh, menacing or mysterious. The emphasis is on what is carefree, erotic and playful in Nature, poetry and theatre. People were preoccupied with the quest for happiness. Hedonism and eroticism were among the dominant motifs of the eighteenth-century culture. The new sensitivity of artists was displayed in its clearest form in the paintings of Watteau who is a Rococo painter par excellence.




Antoine Watteau The Shepherds c.1717


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Bandar Seri Begawan. A photographic essay


Brunei’a official ideology is that of the country being Melayu Islam Beraja (Malay, Islamic Monarchy). The capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, seems to epitomise these characteristics. Brunei is an absolute monarchy. His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam is the head of state, prime minister, minister of defence, minister of finance and minister of foreign affairs and trade.


The sultan may say after the King Louis XIV “L’etat, c’est moi”, being accountable to no-one but God. There is no clear separation between his personal finances and those of the state. His personal wealth has been estimated at $20 billion. Brunei’s entire budget for the 2016-17 financial year is B$5.6 billion ($4.1 billion).

Falling revenue from oil and gas resulted in a deficit of B$2.5 billion in the first nine months of 2016-2017. Brunei is said to have oil and gas reserves for another 24 years. It’s a typical rentier state, relying on non-renewable resources and whose future is uncertain as government revenue is derived in 90 per cent from gas and oil exports. Brunei is still very rich, in fact, it is the world’s fourth richest country, at $79,508 GDP (purchasing power parity) per capita (International Monetary Fund, 2015). However, it will almost certainly become progressively poorer if no serious effort is made to diversify its economy. Brunei has close ties with Singapore – its currency is interchangeable with the Singaporean dollar – but it will not become another Singapore because of its cultural and political peculiarities.       

The sultan, who has reigned and ruled since 1967, urges his subjects to intensify their devotion to Islam as a solution to their country’s problems. Islam in South-East Asia is mixed with the local cultural customs (adat) but Brunei, in the pursuit of religious purity, seems to be on the path towards Arabisation. The country has a dual legal system, with the common law coexisting with the sharia law. The latter was introduced by the sultan in 2014. It remains to be seen how strict the application of the sharia law will be in practice.


Brunei’s puritanical tendencies are manifested in many aspects of the country’s social life (for example, compulsory attendance at Friday prayers at a mosque for Muslims, a ban on alcohol consumption or the use of the Arabic alphabet as the country’s official script). Linguistically, Brunei is Malay, English and Arabic.


The official name of the country is Negara Brunei Darussalam.  Darussalam which means “abode of peace” in Arabic, serves as a reminder that Brunei is part of ummah or the community of all Muslims. Implicitly, the appellation of Dar as-Salam suggests that non-Muslim countries belong to the Dar al-Harb ( the house of war) or the Dar al-Kufr (the realm of unbelievers). 




All these distinctions have no bearing on the attitude of Bruneians to tourists who feel safe and welcomed. The ban on alcohol makes Bandar Seri Begawan a quiet place indeed. The town seems to be quiet for other reasons, too.  Its centre is occupied by government buildings while people live in outer areas or in water villages on both sides of the Brunei River. The town itself has a population of around 50,000 of which 30,000 live in water villages.




Brunei is supposed to be fabulously rich but many people in Bandar Seri Begawan live in abject poverty, especially in river villages.





Infrastructure is underdeveloped. Public transport is almost non-existent while it is impossible to find a taxi. As in Indonesia and Malaysia, one has to walk carefully in order to avoid falling in a hole in a pavement or into open drains.   



When compared with other capital cities, the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan seems to be empty of people and cars. There are no traffic jams and very few pedestrians even in the very centre of the town.



A foreign visitor will leave Bandar Seri Begawan utterly confused. Brunei is one of the wealthiest countries on earth but a large proportion of indigenous inhabitants of its capital city, not to mention immigrant workers, live in poverty.


Bruneians are devout Muslims yet they are very friendly and accommodating towards visitors who do not share their faith or are indeed faithless. The country is both modern and conservative, Malay and Arab-like, with people devoted to religion but also to consumption, and ruled by a monarch who tells his subjects to be humble and yet he himself lives in the world’s largest residential palace.



A departing visitor will be reminded what country (s)he has just visited by seeing a luxury car in a glass box next to a mosque at the entrance to the airport.   


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Why is the West ahead of Islam?

(this is an abridged version of an interview conducted by Beata Janowska with Professor Marek Gensler, of the University of Łódź (Poland). The interview was published in Gazeta Wyborcza on 21 March 2016. The translation and the choice of images are mine).


Henri Bechard Interior of the Amrou mosque ca 1870

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a question arose in the Arab and Latin civilisations of what to do with philosophy. The response was different in each of these two civilisations. In your view, it was a key moment which paved the paths of the Muslim world and Europe. In the eleventh century, the Arabs were far superior to the Latins in their knowledge of philosophy.

Yes, the Arabs knew philosophy incomparably better than the Latins because they inherited ancient philosophy directly from the Greeks. When they conquered Egypt in the seventh century, the Mouseion in Alexandria was still a major intellectual institution of the ancient world. The legacy of Aristotle and Plato, or rather of the whole philosophical tradition, was very much alive in Alexandria at that time.

The Latins hardly knew Aristotle, because only a few of his minor texts were translated into Latin before the sixth century. Previously, there was no need for translations because everyone who dealt with philosophy knew the Greek language. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, and the dark ages began between the sixth and tenth century, contacts with the Greek world had weakened. People no longer understood Greek and all the important texts were lost or were in Byzantium and therefore inaccessible. Nevertheless, Aristotle was still believed to be a great philosopher because he appears as such in the works of St. Augustine.

There were at that time important philosophical centres in Syria.

This is another story, they were created by refugees from Athens. In 529, the emperor Justinian ordered the closure of pagan schools, or more precisely, forbade non-Christians to teach in them. This resulted in the transfer of the Alexandrian school to Christians and that transfer occurred through an arrangement between Christians and pagans. In Athens, however, the philosophical school was closed because the Athenians did not want to negotiate with Christians and preferred to emigrate to Hellenised Syria which was then controlled by the Persians.

In Syria, they translated Neoplatonic texts first into Syriac and then, when the Arabs took over those lands, into Arabic. This work continued in Baghdad, the new capital of the Muslim empire, where a school was established at the court of the caliph. From the fifth to the eighth century, interesting things were done in philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire, of which the Latins were not aware of because of their separation from Byzantium. In contrast, the Arab conquerors of the Roman provinces in the south and east of the Mediterranean showed great interest in the philosophical thought of the conquered population.

Did the Arabs learn Greek?

They employed Greeks and Syrians as translators. Syrians were often were bilingual and, as their Semitic language is close to the Arab language, it was not particularly difficult for them to translate philosophical texts into Arabic. Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus, was a Syrian. There were schools established at the courts of Muslim rulers because the Arabs, unlike the Latins, believed that the monarch should be educated. The Arabs accepted the Greek ideal of an enlightened ruler. The sons of emirs and sultans had to learn philosophy, often from textbooks written specially for them.

In Islam, education was not associated with religion and science was secular in nature. Islam did not develop theology in the Western sense. When Muslim lawyers needed logic, they learned it from ancient thinkers, while doctors studied biology from the same source. However, most Muslims did not think that they could learn anything from pagans about God.

Why did philosophy and theology come close to each other in the West?

Unlike Islam and Judaism, Christianity treats its holy texts as dictated by the Holy Spirit to specific people at a specific time. That is why they have a supernatural element, but also human. The task of the theologian is to extract the revealed truth from a text written down by a human being. The holy text must be freed from the accretions of human origin, and expressed again to be understood by a new generation. St. Augustine said that no one understands fully the message of holy books. Acculturation of the holy texts is therefore necessary for every believer.


Tommaso da Modena Albertus Magnus 1352

Do you mean that one has to interpret Biblical texts anew in order to reconcile them with the level of knowledge and way of understanding of the world at a particular time?

Christians were aware of this from the very beginning. The first theological school was established in Alexandria by Clement at the beginning of the third century, when paganism still prevailed. Origen, who received solid philosophical and philological education at that school, distinguished three levels of interpretation of the revealed text. The first is the somatic or bodily level which involved a literal reading of the simple truths such as the Ten Commandments. The second level, which is psychic, refers to the soul. At this level, moral truths are dissected from the sacred texts for a particular time and place. For example, in the Old Testament, polygamy was allowed, and now it is not. Why? After all, it is not possible for God to change His commandments and indeed, He did not change them, only Man learned to read them differently. That’s what God allowed at the times of Abraham, it became unacceptable when mankind developed new sensitivities. People now understand that having four or five wives is a bad idea. It’s better to have one, lifelong companion. Moral progress affects the interpretation of the biblical texts whose meaning can be adapted to a particular period in the history of mankind.

The third and highest level of Origen’s scheme is called pneumatic as it involves the spirit (Gr. pneuma) and not the soul. At this level, the Bible is being interpreted allegorically to gain knowledge of Man as a creature of God and of God himself. This is the theology in the strict sense i.e. the speculative theology. This is what Christianity managed to gain through philosophy. Without philosophical conceptualisation, we would be doomed to a literal reading of the Bible.

As it is in Islam and Judaism?

In Islam and Judaism, the sacred text is treated as revealed in full, without the human element. In the Torah, which contains the Mosaic laws, there are rules governing nearly all aspects of life and there is not much room for speculation, though Judaism is still much more open than Islam. On the other hand, the Arabs believed that as long as religion does not intersect with science, everything is fine. Religious Islamic law is disconnected from ethics. Metaphysics is also absent. Muslims rejected it as a tool to know God, because there is no place in Islam for a discussion about God as the first cause.

Initially, Muslims showed great enthusiasm for philosophy and there was even a kind of speculative Muslim theology developed by scholars of the Koran, Mutazilites, but later philosophy was considered as unhelpful in spiritual development. Muslims began to wonder whether the extraction of pure knowledge from the Qur’an about God and creation is indeed necessary and whether it leads to salvation. Maybe this is an expression of arrogance of reason which leads people astray? Christians in the West also have such doubts. The eleventh century is a time of great dispute about the value of philosophy, both among Christians and Muslims.

These concerns are best expressed by St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) and Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). 

Damian, a Benedictine monk, came to the conclusion that the development of philosophy went too far. Young and ambitious monks had the audacity to discuss issues such as, What it means that God is omnipotent. Is He omnipotent in such a way that even the principle of contradiction does not apply to Him? Damian was irritated by such deliberations because, being well educated, he sensed that the philosophy began to drift dangerously, freeing itself from theology, and soon it could happen that the philosophy would begin to dictate the terms to theology.

Did Damian believe that the teaching of philosophy should be forbidden?

He wanted to see theology above philosophy. This order was determined by the Augustinian concept of goods, according to which the knowledge of God is the supreme good, so that what serves this aim is also good, including philosophy. However, when philosophy ceases to be a means to this end, and sets itself other goals, it becomes evil because it distracts man from God. Damian worried that philosophy began to separate itself from theology as an autonomous discipline and to impose scientific requirements on theology. He wanted philosophy to be ancilla theologiae, a servant of theology. If philosophy does not want to play this role, it should be discarded.

Al-Ghazali rejected philosophy for slightly different reasons.

Both Damian and Al-Ghazali were scholars and long-time teachers of philosophy. Al-Ghazali studied, commented and taught philosophy until he had a kind of mystical vision that changed his life. He gave up teaching, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and travelled a lot. He abandoned teaching to venture on the mystical search for God. In his famous work The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he criticised the philosophical approach to God as erroneous and of little value. He did not say that philosophy is bad but that it is inferior to mysticism. Such views were voiced in Islam before, however, it was Al-Ghazali who triggered the loss of interest in philosophy among Muslims who gradually abandoned speculative theology which anyway was in an early stage of development. Interestingly, Al-Ghazali also distrusted the systematic study of Qu’ranic law and the emphasis on orthodoxy by its guardians. He maintained that Sufis, or mystics, are closer to God.


Jean-Leon Gerome Prayer in Cairo 1865 

Did Al-Ghazali recommend the abandonment of philosophy for religion?

In the eleventh century, Islamic mysticism went beyond its religious frame, with eminent Sufis suggesting that God is too great to be constrained within one religion. In all religions, mystics are censored because of individualism in their approach to faith. Nowadays, Islamic fundamentalists blow up the tombs of famous Sufis because individualism makes Sufism heretical. Christianity experienced similar problems, as mysticism often leads to heresy.

In the eleventh century, philosophy and science were synonymous. For as much as one could grasp a thing scientifically, one could only describe it in the concepts of philosophy. Even medicine was in fact the practical use of natural philosophy. The emancipation of science occurred in later centuries. A major step on this road was the appearance of universities in Europe in the thirteenth century, with the autonomy of studies and research in various departments. At the faculty of liberal arts, people were free to philosophise in a secular context; they were even forbidden to deal with religious issues. They were only bound by the principles of correct reasoning and by the correspondence between thought and reality. Interestingly, students at the faculty of theology engaged in thought experiments by using the procedures of so-called secundum imaginationem, which are exercises to imagine an entirely hypothetical situation such as, for example, God commanding us to hate Him. This idea was later developed by philosophers and eventually incorporated into the study of nature as an idealisation, that is the representation of a hypothetical state of nature stripped of certain elements which are non-essential from the point of view of the hypothesis under investigation.

For the development of science, it is important to develop complicated theories and to define concepts. Without philosophy and theology, there might not be such giants of science as Newton and Leibniz.

That’s right. Theology was a discipline for pioneering a new type of scientific hypotheses, which were later tested empirically. In science, verification was carried out by experiment, while in theology it was affected by reference to the tradition of religious dogma and the examination whether new theses are consistent with it, or lead to contradictions.


Laurentius de Voltolina

If the West rejected philosophy at that time, would science also be rejected? Was it a decisive point in the fate of Western civilisation?

Yes indeed, although it is difficult for us to accept that this is the case because for the past three centuries we got accustomed to the idea that science is the avant-garde of knowledge and theology is of little consequence. But in the Middle Ages, science found protection under the wings of theology. Regrettably, people now see the the Middle Ages in pejorative terms. Reputation of the Middle Ages suffered greatly during the Enlightenment. Most people nowadays cherish the Renaissance which supposed to be a period of the restoration of antique tradition. In fact, modern science is the legacy of antiquity and the Middle Ages, in which the achievements of antiquity were enriched and developed further.

Mystical knowledge also involves intellect which is however engaged in contemplation rather than speculation. Mystical experience cannot be shared with others. Unlike philosophy, mysticism cannot be taught. Mystical knowledge does not require a conceptual apparatus because the mystical union is inexpressible.

In the West, the position of philosophy was defended by St. Anselm (1033-1109), the archbishop of Canterbury.

The authority of Anselm was instrumental in the continued duration of philosophy as an inalienable component of education. He strongly supported the autonomy of philosophy. Justifiably, Anselm is called the father of scholasticism. He claimed that philosophy is absolutely necessary as an element of education and without education one cannot acquire the knowledge of God.


Ludwig Deutsch The Scribe 1911

In the Arab world, science was defended by Averroes (1126-1198).

Averroes was aware of the damage caused to philosophy by Al-Ghazali, and in response to it he wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence in which he provided arguments against mysticism. According to Averroes, philosophy it is the highest form of theology because only philosophy uses abstract terms, being the subtlest and most sophisticated of all possible forms of expressions as the language of the abstract. Philosophy is capable of expressing matters concerning God as the supreme cause in the fullest and most precise way. Averroes did not differ in that from Aristotle who argued that philosophy leads to the knowledge of God as the first mover. By knowing the causes of things we attain perfect knowledge.

But he failed.

Averroes could play the same role in Islam as Anselm did in Christianity but he had insufficient authority as a religious thinker. He was a kadim, or Islamic judge, a person of great importance but not important enough to save philosophy. He was accused of the lack of piety, because he claimed that philosophy, not religion, is the surest path towards God. As a result, he had to flee from his native Cordoba to Africa. Averroes was treated as a heretic. After him, the authority of philosophy crumbled to dust and even his pupil Ibn Arabi abandoned philosophy for mysticism. Averroes is the last great scholar and philosopher of the Arab world.

In the East, there were no universities in the Western sense because there was no room for autonomous faculties. The University in Cairo, founded in the tenth century, is only a religious school. Over the following centuries, only remnants of philosophy needed by medics and lawyers were preserved in Islam. It is a sad paradox that, when in the twelfth century the Latins literally rushed to the Arab philosophy, and the great Arab scholars were read with admiration in Europe, the thinkers of the Muslim world already switched to mysticism. When universities flourished in Western Europe and became institutions of higher learning in the full sense of the word, science almost completely froze in the Arab world.

We can say that in the relay race of human progress, the baton was taken by another player at the very last moment.

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